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In the past year or so I have been undergoing a transition in my thinking and practice away from conservation ecology into a more socio-ecological position. there are no wildlife problems after all,only human ones right? Ive always been interested in systems thinking and complexity ever since reading Fritjof Kapra’s Web of Life, but I’m beginning to explore how these relate to my practice and have inevitably begun a deep-dive with the help of Complexity Explorer and more recently the Human Current.
Thanks to these great podcasts- I’m currently working through them from Episode 1 and have therefore just discovered the work of Diego Espinosa. I listened to the podcast on his book The Certainty Merchants this morning while driving my border collie Magpie to the vets to get his bandage changed. His foot was squished by a slow moving car, but the wound is recovering really well. He loves a bit of complexity science in the car to calm his nerves!
I made some notes on the podcast but i recommend you listen to it, and the one before (Episode 6) which is really a scene setter for the question of interest to me:
How do we build more natural relationships with uncertainty?
 
Post WW2 society became obsessed with certainty and there rose a tribe- The Certainty Merchants- who you could pay to shore up your live against certainty. Using money we buy the things we need to make us feel safe. We have also undermined the basic organic protection mechanisms- 100,000 years of human behavioural heuristics such as strong social networks and generational economic pacts (inherited wealth). The ego-driven drive towards independence has actually increased vulnerability and reduced resilience and led to pathological systemic impacts such as stress-inflammation-diabetes epidemic.
 
We need to re-engage with uncertainty and accept it as part of our human condition. We can learn so much for the natural world, remembering we are part of it. Self is just a construct. Our conscious minds tend towards using statistics and probability in problem solving which remains reductionist and risk averse.
A must-listen, and undoubtedly a must-read.
If you like this then you’ll also like this read on Medium Time To Design Our Networks

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cooling off for six hours in a police cell in Esher, Surrey, in 1997, with King Arthur Pendragon taking up residence in the cell next door, I had a moment to reflect on the power of words, language and stories. We had both been arrested at the protest in Canbury Gardens, Kingston– the site of the annual Kingston Green Fair. While he was calmly debating with the duty officer as to whether Excalibur was a sword, or actually a religious artefact and therefore it should accompany him into his cell, I was contemplating my reasons for getting angry about the proposed felling of fifty six Lombardy poplars so that new residents of luxury riverside flats would have a better view of the river.

The protest included veterans from Twyford Down (1991) and Newbury Bypass (1994), much bigger protests than the one taking place in leafy, well-to-do Kingston. The line of poplars weren’t native woodland threatened by road building. They were introduced trees planted in the 1930s for screening of a now-disused power station. To those of us who attended the annual  Green Fair however, and who couldn’t leave jobs to join the big protest camps, they were a symbol of resistance to the destruction of the countryside.

At the time, the emotional stories around the protection of the trees weren’t enough for me, and importantly didn’t influence the people that seemed to matter: developers, councillors, government, the police.  I wanted more. I wanted indisputable scientific fact as to the importance of theses trees. In that police cell I decided to become an ecologist: armed with those facts- the REAL story-I would be unstoppable. Surely no one would argue with the facts! So I studied a foundation science course in my evenings, then a biology “A’ Level and finally I went to University to study ecology. A Masters Degree in Applied Ecology and Conservation followed directly and here I am, armed to the teeth with science on habitat destruction, fragmentation, invasive species and global warming. Yet its not enough. 97% of all scientist agree (Cook et al 2013) that global warming is anthropogenic in origin and causing runaway climate breakdown. The IPBES are reporting what amounts to a 6th mass extinction. Yet  the response, the action taken to address this is woefully inadequate and glacially slow.

I worked in conservation for 15 years and learned that there were however only so many people who would sit up and take action over the facts of biodiversity loss and climate change. Facts are far too abstract for most people. The economist Daniel Kahneman in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow explains that a large part of our decision making processes are fast, automatic emotional, stereotypic, and unconscious. I was beginning to find that telling people the factual story and asking them to change their lives was not working. A way through began to emerge for me by listening to people’s stories and trying to highlight with them where nature mattered; to help them see they were embedded in ‘nature’ not separate from it. Facts provide architecture but it was the stories that made them relevant. In a world beset by problems caused by human population growth and resource use, things cant be just what they are; they become what people see them as.

Choice of words and language are critical to understanding and they can be used to build bridges or erect walls. Late last year, George Monbiot called for a change in the language we use around the environment and climate change, proposing amongst other changes the use of the words climate breakdown instead of climate change to convey the sense of urgency; and that phrase ecosystem services, much hated by non-ecologists, should be instead called life support systems.

Words, in this case the deliberate removal of them from the Oxford Junior Dictionary, prompted Robert Macfarlane, Captain of the  Modern Nature Writing Ship, to collaborate with artist Jackie Morris to create The Lost Words, a tome of poems and art that have captured the hearts and minds of so many people that local fundraising campaigns to buy Lost Words have sprung up in all over Britain . At this time we are also exploring a Lost Words Ontario.

Working for the Wildlife Trusts we sometimes struggled with scientific language as a barrier to popular communication. That dreaded word ecosystem services for one, but also the concept of a Living Landscape– the landscape-level conservation thinking that is the key mission of the Trusts- defied abbreviation to media-friendly comms. When you start to explain it, it becomes two wordy but when asked to reduce it to something the public would understand it becomes something so amorphous as to lose its meaning entirely. Perhaps, I thought, some concepts are just not easily explained with words.

In Savage Gods Kingsnorth, after years of using words to fight for nature, finds himself in a place where words- the Savage Gods- are failing him, and language might be tricking him into believing he no longer has a sense of purpose.

“None of this is real. The Scot’s pine is real it is a being, a presence, the birds are real, the solidity of the earth is real and the words are nothing. Nothing. The words are not alive. The words are not quickened, they do not dance or stagger, they are not inhabited. They are hammered survey stakes, acrylic falsehoods that die in the reality of the place. All humans do is talk. Talk talk talk and out come the sounds and like poetry they change nothing but we talk talk talk anyway and we mistake the sounds for meaning or action and the tree just stands there silently and we just talk.” p31

” Is Language the Trap? The field is full of language. Everything is speaking to everything else, and some of it i can hear and some of it, because of my biology or my cultural inheritance, i am not equipped to. All nature is language- but none of it is written down.” p117

I was introduced to Paul Kingsnorth’s writing by a good friend who recognised in his works something I was going through in my own personal journey. Kingsnorth was an activist at Twyford Down, Solsbury Hill and the M11 link road. He has worked for Greenpeace and then was deputy editor of The Ecologist. In 2001 he had the honour of being named one of Britain’s Top 10 Troublemakers by the New Statesman. He is a writer of books, poetry and articles exploring place, nature and environmental concern. In 2009 he co-founded, with Dougald Hine, the Dark Mountain Project , a network of writers and artists who have all but accepted that social collapse is around the corner and have named themselves witnesses to the event.

I read ‘Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist‘ where in a series of essays Paul explored his growing distance from the world of environmental activism. I recognised the sense of it but I wasn’t yet ready to give up ‘the fight’ as Paul seemed to had done. He had gone deeper into the world of environmental politics and protest than I ever had, however. For me, Canbury Gardens had led to Nuclear Testing and anti-WTO protests but I put my energies completely into deepening my scientific understanding.

Savage Gods finds Paul sense-making with his family from his new home in Ireland. The fire in his belly is cooling, becoming something less consumptive, more like the tributaries of a river finding its way through the land. Without the energy from those fires, he is exploring his seemingly frustrated creativity.

“What does a writer do when his words stop working? I dont know. All I know is I’m churning inside and everything I know is windskipping like brown willow leaves in a winter gale”

The move to Ireland brings reflections on place making and connection. How does a self-proclaimed “wanderer through words and worlds” make the connections with place and land that he once had and still craves. Kingsnorth knows that connection to land is an important part of his or anyone’s sense of self, – a ‘sense of reciprocity between a people and the place they live in,‘ yet he finds it almost impossible to bear once he has them.He escaped from his middle-class upbringing and he found no solidarity with his Oxford peers. Now he has also come to hate idealists like the one he used to be.

“I was born in the rootless suburbs and they have given me a rootless soul. I am not a tree. I am some kind of slinking animal in the hedgerow. I am a seed on the wind. I am water. I am coming to the rocks at the lip of the fall.” p25

This style is echoed later in the book when he quotes the Song of Amergin, the invocation of the spirit of Ireland by the mythological poet-druid of the Milesians. As with the original poem perhaps this is a calling to the spirit of the land for recognition, but not this time for a people, but for one man’s uprooted soul.

Language is perhaps our greatest achievement and, if we all just want to connect, to belong to something, language might well be the tool of our demise. Words are an abstraction of things, they are not those things. Language sets us apart in an observers role and defies belonging which we all simultaneously crave and fear. Belonging brings acceptance and annihilation of individuality in the same moment.

The most Savage Gods though seem to be not words or language but the thoughts behind them. The cognitions that form as we unconsciously filter the information from our environment with our evolutionary-sculpted sensory systems. The world we see is the one we inherited through millennia of interactions between us and our environment. The cruel trick begins with thought: the separation starts before words are formed,  because if  we saw things how they really were we would be seeing flow not form, process not state. Yet words and language are part of the road map for survival; they brought us here to where we are today.

In The Language Instinct Steven Pinker, buidling on the work of Noam Chomsky before him, proposed that the ability to learn language is inherited, that we possess a proto-language or ‘mentalese’ which is the same for every language and forms a grammatical structure on which our learning is mapped. This would suggest a thought-prison of our own making, an inability to escape from thinking outside our own box. Recent insights from  Professor of Linguistics Vyvyan Evans in his book The Language Myth challenge this notion. He argues that thoughts aren’t taking place in an abstract mentalese but are “embodied”, arising directly in and from experience. If this is indeed true, thoughts and the language that arise from them aren’t an abstraction at all, but a direct consequence of interaction with the material world, all be it still through a biological filter. It is impossible as yet for an unaided individual to see gamma radiation or smell the world as richly as a dog would.

Where we are could also be a cul-de-sac. In the science fiction novel ‘Blindsight‘ Peter Watts suggests that this separation from ‘being’ through consciousness could actually be an aberration, an evolutionary dead end.

“Evolution across the universe was nothing but the endless proliferation of automatic, organized complexity, a vast arid Turing machine full of self-replicating machinery forever unaware of its own existence. And we—we were the flukes and the fossils. We were the flightless birds lauding our own mastery over some remote island while serpents and carnivores washed up on our shores.”

Life cannot exist for long separated from itself. I am reminded of a time-lapse model of source-sink dynamics, the sink ‘winking’ out of existence unable to maintain itself in a hostile environment without migration from the source.

Savage Gods reads at first like the notebook for a finished work. Something to be honed and crafted and, well……completed. In my head I often asked Kingsnorth why he felt it necessary to publish these ‘workings out’. But if we suffer from seeing form not flow, here he gives us flow. beautifully. Here he is exploring the trap every being falls into when, rather than just doing, begins to ask themselves why?  The answer, if there is one, may not lie in the book, or the bowl or the basket but in the crafting of the book, bowl or basket. We are possessed by ghosts of the evolutionary process which we mistake for purpose. We have come too far down the line of self-reflection which was only ever meant to be a side show to the greater theme of being.

The book also feels aptly titled because it feels like a prayer offered up for a revelation, for insight into the true reality of things, and for meaning and direction.

Perhaps there is only peace to be made with that reality. Defy those Savage Gods, stop fighting and start doing. We can’t easily do both.

Savage Gods was released in early June in Europe and  is available for pre-order in North America through publishers Two Dollar Radio. I am grateful for them for providing a preview copy.

 

 

 

 

 

Kinship
Lima Cat sits at the edge of the kitchen window,
Tail a-swishing,
Muscles twitching.
 
Hunger brings the be-wintered Chickadees
To the feeder,
Forays from the surrounding firs and pines.
 
A black-capped bird alights on window ledge
Strewn with sunflower seeds.
 
Back arched, Lima tenses;
Her eyes fixed and focused,
Her paw flicks out,
Tck.
A futile tap against the window pane.
 
I sit at my laptop,
Two million years and seven thousand miles from
The Plains of Africa.
 
Tck.Tck.Tck.
LimaAtWindow

Lima the Cat. No, you are right, that’s not a chickadee

 

Copy of 20181024_104006

Sarah is very excited about our new hedgerow

Its Autumn! Its Fall! Its Hedge-Time!

I love this time of year as the leaves lose their chlorophyll pigment and the anthocyanins and carotenoids reveal a harvest of ochre, carnelian, caramel, crimson, and ruby.

Chemistry-of-Autumn-Leaves-2018

Perhaps its my conservation background that makes me feel its a time to tinker, or maybe its just a revealed human trait that we are called to interact with the world around us. I’m led towards autumn walks and to woodland work and of course to hedges..

The Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape project is organising the planting of  three new hedgerows  and finishing off an existing site this autumn and the first one is now complete. On Wednesday and Thursday this week a team from the Toronto Region Conservation Authority (TRCA) came to plant up the second hedge at Mount Wolfe Farm, our site for demonstrating how a managed hedge can transform a landscape and provide many benefits for landowners, farmers and the community.

Farm Manager Sarah and I started preping for the arrival of the TRCA on Monday by bush-hogging, ploughing and tilling a strip up along the ‘Bowl’. We were concerned at first that the job would be hard but the plough made short work and soon we were admiring the rich crumbly soil our new plants were going to call home.

 

There had been a slight snowfall when the TRCA arrived on Wednesday morning and the 7-strong team were all bundled up against the cold. They quickly began to unload the plants consisting of American Hazelnut Corlus americana (300), Serviceberry Amelanchier arborea (300), Chokecherry Prunus virginiana (300),  Chokeberry Aronia melanocarpa (150) and Fragrant Sumac Rhus aromatica (150). Their previous job had been planting fill on a development site, so seeing the prepared ground and almost stoneless soil really made their day! I wanted them to get a real sense of the excitement of the novelty of this hedge-planting they were undertaken so at the first break for coffee I gave them a quick talk about hedgerows, the Hedgelaying in Ontario’s Landscape project and the workshops available under the Ontario Rural Skills Network we have started on the Farm. Sarah was on hand to mention the CSA programme at Mount Wolfe too.

“This is your hedge” I told them. ” As you plant this hedge you will have thoughts,ideas and memories that arise that will be woven into its structure. I had in my head the upcoming  Fall Farm Fest on Saturday 27th where I launched a more formal way to bind these stories into the hedge which I’m calling  The Hedgerow Rite (more on this soon). In the mean time I left out a pad for the team to share any thoughts, ideas and “offerings” they had during the planting. I also left out a small basket filled with pieces of paper, which i encouraged them to use to share private thoughts and wishes by burying them beneath the hedge as they planted.

“Its snowed as we planted, wondering if it will be a cold winter this year”- Meggie

“I usually enjoy planting hedges but this preparation is excellent. Knowing the trees and shrubs are going to love soil. I hope i can see this in 10 years!” – Ryan

“Cool project. thanks for having us”- Will

“I was excited to find out the crew were planing here because I have visited the farm before. I will for sure have to come back in a few years and see how the hedge is progressing. thank you!”- Colleen

“Love this place! Beautiful farm! Thank you so much for your warm welcome!”- Gavin

“Thank you for the tea and coffee, so nice!” -Meggie (?)

“If there is a hedge competition there should a planting competition and if there isn’t we should invent it”- Ryan (?)

T

The hedge is planted along what was originally planned as a fence line. The 10cm diameter pine posts had long since rotted however and my visiting godkids Fraser and Sophie had great fun knocking them down to make way for the hedge. Now the hedge would ascend the hill creating a green-way between it and the adjacent  mixed woodland of Cold Creek, it would then curve around the base of the hill and along the upper path across the top of the bowl. The purpose of the hedge here serves at least four purposes:

(i) Aesthetic- providing  a new and exciting experience for  the family, CSA members and visitors as they walk up the green-way, with the grassy bowl and hill revealed through 5m gaps. From the bowl, the hedge will provide a ‘skirt’ to the tall white and red pines behind creating a dense and thick structure with flowers, berries and rich foliage during autumn.

(ii) Cultural- this hedge together with another planted in 2017 and being finished off at the Fall Farm Fest help demonstrate the Crandall Family’s commitment to the shared experience of land-based stewardship and community participation. New stories are being made in the landscape, bound together with the old.

(iii) Biodiversity– this dense well-manged hedgerow will provide many habitats for small birds and mammals and shelter from the sun for shade tolerant butterflies in the green lane.

(iv) Living Fence-the farm hopes in the future to bring in seasonal conservation grazing for the management of the grasslands in the bowl  The hedge will eventually be a stock-proof barrier to livestock.

Thank you Christina, Ryan, Will, Meggie, Colleen, Gavin, and all involved in planting. Thanks to Elizabeth Celanowicz ,TRCA Planting & Stewardship Project Manager, for funding and organising the plants for us. Do come back and visit your hedge.

Coming soon..The Hedgerow Rite in full…

 

Even in winter, hedgerows are working in the landscape. Not only can they prevent snow drift on to roads (a feature or ‘ecosystem service’ I’m keen to explore more in work in Ontario, see 3 Go to Canada: Hedges, Novel Ecosystems and Damn Fine Donuts,HedgeCanada Revisited: healing the landscape and connecting communities with a new hedgerow story  and Hedge Canada 3: The Planting) , thick hedgerows can also be a barrier and shelter against wind for wildlife and people. They also provide visual interest in the landscape, their varied structural forms catching the eye, an adventure in landscape history for the curious mind and a cheering companion on a winter walk, especially when full of redwings after ivy berries! Ivy in hedgerows and trees is crucial at this time of year for birds and small mammals. Rowan berries and hawthorn hips are mostly long gone, but Ivy berries still endure. Kate Bradbury has written about the benefits of Ivy in the Guardian here

Its this varied structure of hedgerows, clearly seen on a winter walk  that underpins their value to biodiversity. In a  recent paper (Graham et al 2018 The influence of hedgerow structural condition on wildlife habitat provision in farmed landscapes) the authors reviewed the importance of hedgerow structure to biodiversity and found that the the definition of a good qualityhedgerow for biodiversity conservation should be expanded to include all those key structural features which are important across taxa. They highlighted the importance of heterogeneity in hedgerow structural condition  where no fixed set of hedgerow characteristics were found to benefit all taxa., which leads away from the prescription of uniform hedgerow management , because some species (including those of conservation concern) are likely to be adversely affected by a loss of suitable habitat or resource decline. I’ll review the paper in  future blog.

It’s important to maintain hedgerows in good condition however. Annual cutting at the same height every year stresses plants resulting in thick stems and a hard knuckle of regrowth which cracks and splinters under a flail which looks unsightly and may contribute to exposing plants to disease and decay. Annual cutting leads to gappy hedgerows as plants disappear from the hedge, like in this ‘candelabra’ hawthorn along Chapel Road in Westhumble, Dorking. Equally, non intervention leads to tree lines and eventual disappearance of hedgerows.

 

IMG_3629

 

I suggest a balance needs to be set between the need to preserve the hedgerows and hedge networks itself versus the needs of the species that occupy it/them. There is a point in the (The Hedge Management Cycle, (see also Hedgelink website) where a hedgerow reaches Point 10-  line of trees, and is managed as such for biodiversity and socio-ecological benefits. There are some old beech hedges in Surrey at Haslemere and Hindhead and on Leith Hill which still retain the old pleachers fused together at the bottom of huge mature beeches. These amazing relics are part of the story of our landscape history and while I wouldn’t prescribe ‘no intervention management’ to all hedgerows its important to allow space for such features to emerge, both for wildlife and people. Its only by planning at the landscape scale and over time can you assure the heterogeneity Graham et al recommend.

 

Old Hedge & SarahD_Comp

Relic beech hedgerow at Leith Hill, Surrey

 

For more information about hedgerow management visit the Hedgelink website  http://www.hedgelink.org.uk

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